Dispersion of the Jews

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The dispersion of the Jews began early, although their attachment to Judea has always been the same. Like the Highlanders of Switzerland and Scotland, they seem to have combined a tendency to foreign settlements with the most passionate love of their native land. The first scattering of Israelites (the majority of which we not Jews) began with the Assyrian exile, when natives of Galilee and Samaria (the northern ten tribes of Israel) were carried away by the Eastern monarchs. The Kingdom of Judah's (Jews) captivity (tribes of Judah, Benjamin and the Levites) by the Babylonians was completed 137 years later.

That the above earliest dispersion was not without influential results may be inferred from these facts. About the time of the battles of Salamis and Marathon, a Jew was the minister, another of the Jews the cupbearer, and a Jewess the consort, of a Persian monarch. They enjoyed many privileges in this foreign country. In fact, since their condition was not always oppressive, when Cyrus gave them permission to return to their ancestral home the majority remained in Persia.

Thus that great colony of Jews began in Babylonia, the existence of which may be traced in Apostolic times (1Peter 5:13) and which retained its influence long after in the Talmudical schools. These Hebrew settlements may be followed through various parts of the continental East to the borders of the Caspian and even to China.

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We, however, are more concerned with the coasts and islands of Western Asia. Jews had settled in Syria and Phoenicia before the time of Alexander the Great. But in treating of this subject, the great stress is to be laid on the policy of Seleucus, who, in founding Antioch, raised them to the same political position with the other citizens.


Ruins of mosque in Alexandria
Ruins of mosque in Alexandria

One of Seleucus' successors to his throne, Antiochus the Great, established two thousand families of Jews in Lydia and Phrygia. From hence they would spread into Pamphylia and Galatia, and along the western coasts from Ephesus to Troas. And the ordinary channels of communication, in conjunction with that tendency to trade which already began to characterize them, would easily bring them to islands such as Cyprus and Rhodes.

Their oldest settlement in Africa was that which took place after the murder of the Babylonian governor of Judea, and which is connected with the name of the prophet Jeremiah (2Kings 25:22 - 26, Jeremiah 43, 44).

The Jewish quarter of Alexandria is well known in history, and the colony of Hellenistic Jews in Lower Egypt is of greater importance than that of their Aramaic brethren in Babylonia. Alexander himself brought Jews and Samaritans to his famous city. The first Ptolemy brought many more and many betook themselves hither of their free will, that they might escape from the incessant troubles which disturbed the peace of their fatherland. Nor was their influence confined to Egypt, but they became known on one side in Ethiopia, the country of Queen Candace (Acts 8:27) and spread on the other in great numbers to the "parts of Libya about Cyrene."

It is natural to suppose that those islands of the Archipelago which, as Humboldt has said, were like a bridge for the passage of civilization, became the means of the advance of the Jews. The journey of the proselyte Lydia from Thyatira to Philippi (Acts 16:14) and the voyage of Aquila and Priscilla from Corinth to Ephesus (Acts 18:18), are only specimens of mercantile excursions which must have begun at a far earlier period.

Philo mentions Jews in Thessaly, Boeotia, Macedonia, Atolia, and Attica, in Argos and Corinth, in the other parts of Peloponnesus, and in the islands of Euboea and Crete. Luke, in the book of Acts, speaks of Jews in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and in Rome.

The first Jews came to Rome to decorate a triumph, but they were soon set free from captivity, and gave the name to the "Synagogue of the Libertines" in Jerusalem. They owed to Julius Caesar those privileges in the Western Capital which they had obtained from Alexander in the Eastern. They became influential and made proselytes. They spread into other towns of Italy and in the time of apostle Paul's boyhood we find them in large numbers in the island of Sardinia. If apostle Paul accomplished that journey to Spain, of which he speaks in his letters, there is little doubt that he found there some of the scattered children of his own people.

How far Judaism and the Jews extended among the vague collection of tribes called Arabians, we can only conjecture from the curious history of the Homerites, and from the actions of such chieftains as Aretas (2Corinthians 11:32). But as we travel towards the West and North, into countries better known, we find no lack of evidence of the moral effect of the synagogues, with their worship of Jehovah and their prophecies of the Messiah.

Nicolas of Antioch (Acts 6:5) is only one of that "vast multitude of Greeks" who, according to Josephus, were attracted in that city to the doctrine and ritual of the Jews. In Damascus, we are even told by the same authority that the great majority of the women were proselytes, a fact which receives a remarkable illustration from what happened to Paul at Iconium (Acts 3:50). But all further details may be postponed till we follow Paul himself into the synagogues, where he so often addressed a mingled audience of "Jews of the dispersion" and devout strangers.

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